Imelda Marcos—Not!

More than a quarter century ago, I teased my good friend, Sister Libby, about her ugly nun shoes. Indignant, she claimed that she wore orthotics because she had bad feet. At the time, I walked around in medium-high heels, leaning decidedly towards the pointy-toed kind. High heels gave way to fashionable flats and wide sneakers. The flats disappeared quickly, as my hammerhead toes rebelled against being squeezed into short toe boxes. Then I tore an Achilles tendon jumping on a trampoline—do not jump on a trampoline when you are close to seventy years of age!  After dragging around a walking cast for six months, I ended up wearing open-heeled shoes for the next three years.

When I no longer needed backless shoes, I discovered Merrel footwear and booties—those cute little half-boot, low-heeled shoes. I scoured shoe departments and online shoe sales, amassing a goodly number of sneakers and booties—more sneakers and booties then I could wear out in two lifetimes. Some of my shoes still have the price stickers attached and have never been out of their boxes.

I viewed my shoe racks with great satisfaction and a smidgeon of buyer’s remorse. I had a lot of shoes. In the end, heredity struck. My family’s notoriously ugly feet and hammerhead, overlapping toes— exacerbated by arthritis—ended all hopes of normal shoe wearing. It was ugly nun shoes for me, along with pricey orthotics and soft slippers.

Although I have baskets of shoes waiting to go to Goodwill, I am no Imelda Marcos, who—as Time magazine reported—left behind 1,060 pairs of shoes when she fled Malacañang Palace in the Philippines. I do, however, owe Sister Libby an apology.

Recycled Love

Gros calins et plein de bisous (big hugs and lots of kisses) was the saying on the card, along with written hopes that I was surviving my Covid-19 confinement. On the front of the card was a fuzzy white teddy bear—very cute. My friend Beatrice had sent it from France, and it cheered me up to get it. 

Shortly thereafter, my thirteen-year-old granddaughter came downstairs to my apartment in tears. Ella is a big girl, a good head taller than her ever-shrinking grandmother. Needless to say, it is awkward to try to hug her, but she hung on to me for at least ten minutes. Ten minutes is a long time for a teenager to hug anyone. She was having a panic attack. No wonder, given the state of affairs in the country, our imminent move out of state, her bat mitzvah just two weeks away, and her best friend’s upcoming surgery. Ella was a mess.

I suggested that it would make her feel better, and be a nice thing to do for Ava, if she made her friend a speedy recovery card before the mailman made his daily delivery.

“I don’t have a card,” she sniffed. “I think I have a solution for that,” I said, as I tried to extricate myself from her grip. “How about this?” I asked, holding up my adorable fuzzy bear card. Ella knitted her eyebrows together, not quite sure what to do with it, given Beatrice’s French message inside. “Easy peasy,” I said, tearing the card into two parts and handing her the fuzzy bear section, which was blank on the other side. I also gave her a stamped blank envelope and asked if she had colored pencils for writing her message. In the blink of an eye, she was gone—gone and smiling.

I emailed Beatrice to confess that I had recycled her card. Her reply came quickly. “Excellent! Will send you another one; the confinement is not over!”

GG or Why My Mother Lived A Long and Vital Life

“Pollyanna” is often used as a derisive label and, more often, used to refer sarcastically to an aging person. But Disney made a movie some decades back, based on a 1913 novel by Eleanor H. Porter, in which Pollyanna was a little girl who changed the outlook of an entire town. The dictionary defines a Pollyanna as an excessively cheerful or optimistic person, but infers that s/he is someone in denial. 

GG was an archetypical Pollyanna. She made lemonade. Unlike the cynical definition, my mom hid from nothing. Instead, she encountered every challenge and every left turn in life with determination sprinkled with a huge serving of optimism. Her life was not easy. With a working-class financial status, a deformed spine, and a high school education, she became a young widow with four children.  Nevertheless, GG not only survived; she thrived well into her late 90s—missing her 100th birthday by a mere six months.

So how would GG cope with Covid-19 limitations?  Normally, she got up each morning, started a pot of coffee, made her bed, changed out of her nightgown, and settled down to read the morning paper from cover to cover. In 2014, the year GG died, Admiral William H. McRaven famously advised, “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” Mom had been making her bed her entire life and changing lots of people’s worlds—always for the better.

This is how I imagine that my mom would cope with the pandemic and confinement. Restricted from her normal activities she would finish her paper and begin making phone calls, going down her list to check in with family and friends. She would bind them in a web of connection and love, listening to their aches, concerns, fears, and hopes while avoiding their pessimism and instilling her optimism. If she were physically able, she would go for a walk alone; if not, she would do some exercises at home—then maybe take in a daytime talk or game show before a nap or cozying up with a new book. She would play solitaire, online scrabble, or knit.  If someone brought her fabric, she would make face masks and give them away. She would fill the day from morning till bedtime. The days would roll by without complaint.

Mom, keenly aware of the good in her life, was grateful for it. It filled her up and left no room for self-pity. Trying to emulate her, I’m not doing half-bad. I throw in a little Zen philosophy when I waver and leave out daytime television. So far, Covid-19 hasn’t daunted my enthusiasm for greeting another day. . . and I definitely make my bed every morning.

School Boards in the time of COVID 19

“You board members will rue the day you voted to open schools for face to face instruction.”

“How dumb can you board members be—desk shields are useless.”

“My children need to be in school. I cannot stay home from work and they cannot learn on their own.”

“Please G-d, make the right decision no matter what politics the Governor is playing.”

Most emails start with a “thank you for your hard work, I know there are no decisions which will satisfy everyone” and then they go to concerns, threats, pleas and suggestions. Some emails skip the thank you. I try to answer each email within 24 hours, so does my superintendent.  Admittedly, we don’t address the details of their comments, just promise to consider them.

I feel empowered to make a decision independent of either my board colleagues or community members. I am not running for re-election. Unfortunately, I am as confused as everyone else is. My confusion stems from the inordinate amount of conflicting information available. At some point, you have to conclude that everyone is spinning the data for their own political agenda. While I am convinced the president is the worst of the prevaricators, and the most heinous, neither do I find the Democrats any more trustworthy.

Mental health experts and sociologists agree that small children need face-to-face learning. Middle schoolers need in-person social interaction. High school students need rigor. Grandparents need to be protected from getting COVID from the grandkids they are raising, but equally need some respite from 24/7 parenting. How to decide?  I’ve often heard the quote “We can’t let perfect by the enemy of better” but better has to be the best we can achieve. How do we know we are at “better”.

I heard one parent say that virtual is the only way. And when asked about parents who are not home, they replied, well they have to do the same thing they do for a snow day! In WV we might have a handful of snow days, not a semester full. The lack of empathy between those with options and those without is stunning, shocking and sad.

How will I vote? Will my vote even matter? Woe to the educational decision makers in the era of COVID 19, dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t.  I don’t believe post pandemic education will be anything like pre-pandemic education, nor will society. The upheaval will change the financial, economic, industrial, and social landscape with one thing for certain—today’s losers will be tomorrows losers, there will just be more of them and they will be worse off.

Unfashionable Accessories

My sister-in-law eyed me as if I were an anarchist. “Why are you wearing only one sock?” she asked, a tinge of annoyance in her voice. I wanted to say that it was none of her business, but instead I provided an explanation for my unusual fashion choice. “The arthritis has thinned the ball of my foot, separating  toes and making them numb and hurt. Incarcerating them in a sock relieves the symptoms. It affects only my left foot, so only my left foot has to wear a sock.” She humphed and left me to eat my muesli in peace.

Occasionally, I wear a soft black thumb cast on my hand to relieve the pain from osteoarthritis, and wearing knee bands is essential for walking or hiking. I never get on a plane without knee-high compression stockings. The latest addition to my wardrobe is a finger glove. You pull these individual gel-filled gloves on a finger swollen with arthritic pain.

These external paraphernalia are not in the same category as false eyelashes and padded bras, but they probably provide more benefits to your overall health and wellness than either of those do. Why poison your liver and kidneys with harsh drugs when you can aggravate your sister-in-law and relieve discomfort with a few unfashionable accessories?

I Can’t Breathe

“I can’t breathe. Mommy, I can’t breathe!” It was a little after 6:00 a.m.

“Ring for the nurse. Ring now.”

“I did, Mommy, but no one has come.”

“Ring again. Push the button.”

“I am, Mommy, I am. This is the end. I can’t breathe. My chest is bursting. My heart rate is way up.”

Tevi’s dire condition wasn’t the result of police brutality, but horrifying nevertheless. “Tevi, ring the bell again, again. I’m here. I’m right here with you.”

For 10 long agonizing minutes, I listened to her cough and wheeze, yelling for the respiratory team and getting no response. Finally, I heard them in her room. It took another 15 minutes or so for her to respond to the treatment—erasing her fear that she would never breathe again.

I don’t know when I started to cry or began to imagine her dying while I was on the phone with her 500 miles away. Thinking that she would die alone away from her children, me, everyone. Eventually her voice relaxed, the heart monitor stopped beeping, the call button went quiet, and she began to calm down and breathe on her own.

Tevi was scheduled for an arterial catheter this morning. Even though the procedure wasn’t certain after her early morning asthma attack, she was in the catheter lab by 10 o’clock; by 11:30, the cardiologist had called me. Tevi had cardiomyopathy, a stress-induced cardiac problem. But her arteries were clear and, if she responded well to the medication—beta blockers and something else—she could recover in as soon as a week. Although the doctor was very positive, he then shared something else: Tevi was vaping! She had severe asthma, and she was vaping! The news was a gut punch.

I don’t know why I was surprised. I had learned only the night before that my newly divorced daughter and mother of two little children’s friend-boy, Robert, was actually her boyfriend. Because he had spent the night, he was with her when she passed out and had to be taken to the ER three days earlier! She may a dissembler, but Tevi is also a survivor. In the midst of all the chaos this morning, she had the presence of mind to give me her work number and ask me to call.

Here I am—angry, scared, and frustrated. She’s twenty-nine and a mother. Shouldn’t she be more responsible? Shouldn’t I be able to trust her?  Shouldn’t she know better?

Hell, no! When I was 29 and a mother of two, I had divorced my husband and run off to become a police officer, leaving my daughters to be latch key kids. Shouldn’t I have known better?

When Your House is Angry

My eldest daughter is convinced that houses have energy fields and that they can fill life with unexpected challenges. Of course, she believes in Feng Shui, too, so I don’t always pay enough attention to her. I admit, however, to following her advice years ago when I tucked a copper wire circle under the entrance rug to my apartment.

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis and the limitations it has imposed, we’re preparing to sell our home in West Virginia and relocate to Georgia. Our decision to move, just a few weeks ago, was rather spontaneous; a job became open that my son-in-law, Tim, desired. He had put off—sometimes for years—renovations that the house needed or that the family wanted. Occasionally, his reticence was due to a lack of money; however, in general, he would rather watch HGTV than do any actual remodeling. Mostly, we took care of required repairs: a new roof, new deck, new windows, solar panels (a political statement about renewable energy rather than a necessity), and a very pricey retaining wall.

When Tim got the job offer, it was decidedly crunch time. In-progress projects had to be finished and the house readied for sale. That’s when Murphy’s Law—or the house’s negative energy—went full tilt. Paint the window frame and the ladder busts off the flagpole bracket. The beautiful eight-year-old weeping pussy willow tree next to the front door suddenly died; we came home from an errand to find that water was gushing from a ruptured supply line and flooding the basement. We couldn’t get local movers scheduled, and the big van lines wanted $16,000 to move us. The final atrocities: I had a major arthritis flare-up that caused my right hand to look something akin to a bear paw, and my daughter threw out her back and couldn’t move for three days. Meanwhile, Tim had to leave to start his new job before the house was ready for the market.

One night, I had a chat with my house. I told it that we had to leave. My son-in-law really needed this change. We were not abandoning the house, and we were all really grateful for its shelter and comfort all these years. I told it not to worry. I was sure that the people who buy it would love it and care for it, just as we had.

The next morning, my hand looked normal and the pain was minimal. A neighbor convinced her friend, a local chiropractor, to squeeze my daughter into his schedule. She is walking again. The house sparkles, and we immediately had two showings. Affordable movers are scheduled, and the sun is shining.

Do you talk to your house? Maybe you should.

They Call Me Dalma

The Bobe, or Babushka, was the old crone in the faded sepia photograph in the dusty family album or, at best, in a tiny frame tucked behind a vase on the credenza. I was not going to be that person. Long before I discovered dozens of websites full of cool names for grandmothers, I knew names like paw-paw and mam-maw from my southern friends in Miami, and I had an aunt whose grandchildren called her Mimi. My own maternal grandmother was Bebe or Grandma B. (Her name was Bertha.) When one of my daughters was a toddler, she would laugh aloud when people called grandma Bebe, confusing “bebe” with “baby,” not understanding why this old lady was called a baby. My mother, Grandma Gert, was renamed GiGi by her wealthier friends in the assisted living residence. (It took her family several years to accept, because we thought that it was much too chi-chi).

I recently asked a lifelong friend how she also got the nickname Mimi. “It didn’t start out that way,” she told me. “I was Grammy and Bob was Pa. However, baby Baily would hold out his little arms and call out me, me when he wanted me to pick him up. My daughter gave in. ‘Mom,’ she said, ‘he’s named you Mimi, so just go with it.’”

I wasn’t a grandmother yet when I chose my grandmother name. I had g-d grandchildren, and I had even adopted a little one, but they were all in Cambodia and called me Momma. While I was working in Phnom Penh, I met a hip young Danish woman who was also there doing some international work. Her name was Dalma. I was struck by her “with-it” panache, and so the name stuck with me. For many years, I thought that Dalma translated to English as “lady,” and therefore was suitably close enough to be a grandmother pseudonym. I became Dalma to my grandchildren, to their friends, and to friends’ children with whom I was close.

Dalma, pronounced d-lmaa and derived from Hausa origins in Africa, means metal or tin. It is rarely used as a name for girls in Denmark. Not being listed in the top 1,000 baby names makes it unique enough for me.

Ode to Packing

I suppose there are veteran travelers, or maybe backpackers, who can just stuff a few things into their bag and go. I was not one of those people. When I had to pack for a year in Cambodia, I found myself more equipped for a Boy Scout outing than for an international electoral mission. Although I had acquired a spectacular Swiss army knife, a half dozen plastic bottles of Avon Skin So Soft—guaranteed, my military buddies insisted, to protect me from insect bites—and a rather impressive mosquito net, the world-time watch and water filtration system suddenly seemed a bit ridiculous.

Even a long weekend trip required packing several pairs of shoes, too many matching shirts, pants, and earrings. Only rarely was I smart enough to take a pair of stretch black jeans and a couple of black t-shirts and call it good. More often than not, I felt like a pack mule rather than a tourist. I even had fold-up bags to carry more “stuff” that I bought along the way.

My mother, who loved to travel—indeed lived to travel—had a motto: never take more than you can carry. It took me decades to appreciate her wisdom.

Necessity, not desire, changed my old packing habits. I had become a septuagenarian with arthritis who had to pack for three months across several continents, time zones, and multiple elevations.

My suitcase had to be light enough to pull off an airport’s baggage carousel without throwing out my back, haul it up stairs if necessary, and take it on trains and buses. To save suitcase space, I would wear my heaviest shoes on the plane as well as my heaviest jacket because I was going to travel between tropical climes and high latitude destinations. I had long since stopped worrying about wearing jewelry, not wanting to have a good ring cut from my finger. Only one superfluous item had to go with me, and I would wear it around my neck—an ancient wooden Buddha that I’ve worn almost daily for the past 30 years. I have been assured by many Cambodians that my travel totem has great power; it is why they believe I am so strong.

Because Metamucil is not sold in China, a bottle of it went into my suitcase. So did a myriad of medications, so many that I had to take out a purse, a third pair of shorts, and a long sweater. I was down to bare bones. The suitcase closed. I could lift it with one hand. Success.

Not success. I cannot travel without trinkets to pass out as gifts for unexpected kindnesses or for children whom I meet along the way. Since I no longer had a purse, I found a light-weight backpack to double as a wallet, a folder for travel documents, and a catch-all for everything that did not fit into my suitcase. I threw in an all-purpose scarf, in case I wanted to visit a mosque or make a fashion statement, a dozen emergency protein bars, lip balm, an extra toothbrush, and eyeliner—my one makeup requirement. I also decided to take an iPad, which is an acceptable substitute for a phone, camera, and laptop. There was only one thing left to carry—three dozen miniature squishies to pass out to children. They squish, so into the pack they went.

Zip, snap, zip.   I was ready!

All Good Deeds Get Punished

“Loving your fellow as yourself,” said the great Jewish sage, Rabbi Akiva, “is a most basic principle in the Torah.” Altruism takes good deeds further by stipulating that loving your fellow has to include a disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. However, recent neuroscience studies have shown that, when people behave altruistically, their brains activate in regions that signal pleasure and reward, similar to when they eat chocolate (or have sex). Does this benefit not negate the act’s pure altruism?

Literally thousands of women and men from countries all around the world volunteer for humanitarian or development work. Most volunteers, whether for the UN or agencies such as CARE and Oxfam, do not earn much money. Some work their way up through administration to career positions, but those positions are scarce. Some volunteer because of a personal need to help, be admired, get away from or resolve a personal problem, or live out a messianic fantasy.  Nevertheless, most are sincerely committed to a variety of faith-based and secular global values; the work itself provides the primary reward for their efforts.

One such woman was my friend, Martha Teas. In the early 1990s, Martha and I were both working for the United Nations in Cambodia. I was a volunteer, escaping the end of a marriage and supervising local elections, whereas Martha was a career UN worker with the World Food Organization. When she and I had a chance to visit, our conversations always turned to the topic of whether we were altruistic. Martha maintained that our work met the definition of altruism and, because the so-called rewards were an unexpected benefit, they thus did not count against us. I disputed that claim, since any psychological or financial benefit voided the stipulation of selflessness. I argued that real altruism could only be obtained if, in addition to not benefiting, you had to pay a price; in essence, you had to be punished. I was way too happy in Cambodia for my work to count as altruism.

Martha, who reminded me of a bookish librarian, was a pacifist who abhorred the military. Nevertheless, as a UN careerist, she continued to work in areas of sustained low-level combat and instability, on missions caught in open warfare and hostilities. As the UN became increasingly involved in nation-building, the traditional military/humanitarian distinction blurred, turning civilian humanitarian workers into targets for resistance fighters.

Martha and I lost touch after I returned to my academic position in the U.S., but I never forgot her or our endless debates about the meaning of altruism. Maybe all good deeds don’t get punished. Maybe I was wrong.

On August 19, 2003, a suicide bomber drove a truck full of explosives to the United Nations headquarters in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, and blew it up, killing 22 people—among them Martha Teas, age 47, UNOHCI Manager in Iraq.